Picture this: You’re a soccer team, trying to break through and win your region’s annual championship, and you’ve been drawn in a knockout series against one of the best performing teams in the tournament in recent years.
Oh, and this knockout series will be your first two games of the season, while your opponent has been playing competitive soccer for nearly two months.
That’s the task all of the MLS teams still alive in the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League have ahead of them, as they are all paired off against Liga MX teams. On a local level, the LA Galaxy will take on Santos Laguna, beginning with Wednesday’s first leg at the StubHub Center (7 pm PT, FS1/UDN), and face the unenviable task of trying to spring an upset while playing their first competitive games of the year.
Santos won the 2015 Clausura (winter/spring) Liga MX title, and have been one of the most consistently good teams in the league and in CONCACAF the past several years. While they haven’t tasted ultimate success in Champions League, they were finalists in both 2012 and 2013, so they’re used to deep runs in the competition’s knockout phase.
And while the Galaxy have been the class of MLS in the MLS Cup playoffs the past five years, they haven’t been able to overcome the early season jitters in CCL to advance past the first knockout round the last two times they reached this point.
Add to that the major overhaul made to the defensive side of the team this offseason, with several newcomers, including goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, defenders Jelle Van Damme and Ashley Cole, and midfielder Nigel de Jong likely to get the start against Santos, and LA will have to either play mistake-free soccer or score seven goals at home to really set themselves up to win the series.
It’s not going to be easy, and truth be told, it could get ugly over the course of two games. Despite that, it doesn’t mean LA is doomed. Just last year, a team that was considered one of MLS’ worst at the beginning of the season, the Montreal Impact, had a combination of luck and skill to make their way to the CCL final, only losing in the second leg, at home, to another Liga MX side, Club América. Not to take anything at all away from their accomplishment, but if the Montreal Impact could do it, then any MLS team still alive absolutely has a shot.
But all of that will fade away on Wednesday night, when bodies getting accustomed to the 10-to-12 month haul ahead will kick off the 2016 season, in one of the most important games coming right at the top.